BBH, the advertising agency whose “Homeless Hotspots” experiment became the unlikely star of SXSW, is in full damage-control mode. Critics call the program, in which homeless Austinites carry 4G hotspots and exchange bandwidth for donations, everything from “horrifying,” “scary” to “dehumanizing.”
Front Steps, the Austin homeless advocacy group that helped BBH design the program and find its participants, doesn’t agree. Spokesperson Mitchell Gibbs says that despite the backlash, this was a good idea. He told BuzzFeed FWD, “I think the fit [with Front Steps] is in the empowerment, education, and encouragement of the client to earn an income while saving the majority of those earnings with a goal of moving to safe and stable housing.”
In an email, he explained how the program came about, and how it’s been going:
Clients in case management were referred by their case managers directly to the advertising agency which selected 10 of the 18 referrals.
This pilot is based on the street newspaper model and may provide an insight into the public’s willingness to digitally interact with the homeless.
Thursday was our training day and there was so much energy in the room! Especially when each person received their t-shirts with their names on them and viewed their hotspot profiles for the first time. Friday and Saturday were pretty bleak… the downpour of rain had kept SXSW participants indoors or dashing from dry spot to dry spot, and thus not much business for our clients. They were a little down, but several were anxious to get back out there and try anyway. Great spirit. When the rain stopped… there was again that rush of energy as they dashed into the sunny afternoon.